Vietnam: A blend of old and new


Local News

June 2, 2018 - 8:20 AM

A fishing village lays nestled among the limestone islets of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

The trouble with visiting a country like Vietnam is just that — you’re a foreigner, and as such will never have the inside scoop as to what it’s like to live there.

So with that in mind, I’ll give an outsider’s view from an all-too-brief 12-day visit. The trip was by boat, touring the riverways of northern Vietnam May 16-26. Also on board were husband Brian Wolfe and 18 other passengers, primarily from Australia and New Zealand. The trip was organized by Pandaw, a commercial enterprise that provided two guides and scheduled stops each day.

The highlight was two days in Ha Long Bay where we sailed among 2,000 dramatic limestone islets that dot the Gulf of Tonkin leading to the South China Sea. The archipelago is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and provided an idyllic setting for swimming and kayaking.

At the other end of the spectrum was our time in Hanoi, the capital city of almost 8 million that swarms with hundreds of thousands motorcycles and bicycles. Because the average monthly salary of someone living in Hanoi is $281, most can’t afford cars. It’s not unusual to spot entire families aboard a motorcycle with two or three children sandwiched in between the parents. Crossing the street is a leap of faith. You take advantage of the smallest break in traffic and trust the cyclists will whiz around you. We arrived home in one piece, so I guess it worked.

Hanoi is a culinary treat. People set up small makeshift kitchens right on the sidewalk where they prepare stir fry, soups, barbecue ribs, egg rolls and spring rolls and shredded salads. The Vietnamese balance sweet and sour, silky and crunchy, fried and steamed. The food is incredibly cheap and tasty.

Vendors purchase their ingredients at the early and late afternoon markets that line the streets.

All kinds of meats and seafood, vegetables and fruits fill the stalls — a feast as much for the eyes as for the stomach.

Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee in the world after Brazil. A typical afternoon includes a coffee break where a layer of sweet condensed milk is topped with iced espresso. Stir, and it’s a taste of heaven.

“If it moves, we eat it,” said one of our guides, hopefully with tongue in cheek.

But there was a noticeable absence of furry or feathery creatures.

We started out traveling northwest on the Red River, a Mississippi-like river along which barges were loaded with primarily rock, gravel, sand and coal. As a rapidly developing country, there’s great demand for concrete for new roads and buildings. Vietnam is a very young country with the median age of

30. Iola’s is 36.

That also means a greater majority of Vietnamese are that much further removed from the Vietnam War. A visit to the “Hanoi Hilton” was a somber reminder of the terrible conditions U.S. soldiers endured when held as prisoners of war. Pictures of Sen. John McCain’s capture and imprisonment were especially poignant.

Stops included visits to Buddhist temples and Catholic churches and programs that featured traditional folk music and dancing.

Vietnam is of two worlds: Fast-paced technology as evidenced by Samsung Electronics as well as an industrial powerhouse in oil and coal, offset by the ancient arts of pottery and weaving.

Agriculturally, the Vietnam we saw is a century behind the United States. Many crops are still planted and harvested by hand or with the help of water buffalo and oxen. We saw nary a combine.